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Hand-Stitched: The Art of Chris Francis' Shoes

Untitled," by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum, photo courtesy of Museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.

That echoing click-click, click-click on a marble floor is unmistakable. Its seemingly effortless ability to float across a room is inherent in their power, while the delicate yet dangerous aesthetic of each pair is alluring for the wearer and the onlooker. A constant symbol of elegance, sexuality and power, high heels are often seen as accessories to enhance a person's style or look, and over the years, they have come to be one of the most complicated and desired fashion accessories in existence. High heels are lust and love.

Shoe designer and maker Chris Francis makes shoes to express more than just these base emotions. As complex and complicated sculptural objects, Francis' heels are art, fashion, emotion and, for him, it's the process that's the most fascinating part. "What really fascinated me about shoes was the amount of math and geometry that went into them, and that's really what inspires me to create them," he says. "Just trying to process my surroundings with these formulas, I create the shoes, and the shoes just end up being the result of that process." Francis has been making shoes for just about five years, though he has been painting and drawing shoes on every possible surface for as long as he can remember, and admits that there is not a day that goes by where he doesn't create. "I mean, I am making shoes from sun-up to 10 or 11 at night, every day," he says.

"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.

He creates one-of-a-kind shoes by appointment only, and custom-sized for every client. With a laundry-list of celebrity customers, Francis now has the ability to really dive into each and every pair he makes, finding inspiration in every aspect of his life from his favorite books, to the music he listens to, to a flea market find, he creates shoes like an artist. It was this reason that the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) reached out to him to talk about the art of shoe making. The result of which is his first solo exhibition of his life's work, "Chris Francis: Shoe Designer," which opened May 24, 2015.

Originally from Indiana, with an uncle and a grandfather in building hot rods and painting race cars, Francis grew up around tools and carpentry, building things with them, since a very young age. Even now, all of his shoes are handmade with no technology involved, and a few pieces of hand-powered old shoemaking equipment. "The only technology I use is my iPhone for music," he says.

"Without that structural knowledge from my childhood," he says, "I don't think I would have been able to even make my first pair of shoes, because I make shoes more like a carpenter than a shoemaker, in some respects."

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Francis hopped freight trains for years, until settling down in Los Angeles. He is a free spirit, educating himself on everything he found interesting, and finding personal significance in his adventures. He now uses those experiences as inspiration for shoes. "That's just the way I interpret everything, and choose to live in the world, just through making shoes, I guess."

Francis saw a Louis Vuitton women's shoemaker do a shoemaking demonstration at an opening when he was younger, and couldn't get that strange and hypnotic process out of his head. From the materials, to the aesthetic, the perfection to the mistakes, Francis was enamored with high heels. "I watched this shoemaker make shoes, and that was the first time it hit me, that this was something I could actually do by hand," he recalled. "I was like so many others, and didn't think that shoes could just be made." The very next day, he went to work, teaching himself how to create a high heeled boot, and by the end of the week, he had a wearable, platform, leather boot, that looked like "something KISS would wear on stage."

"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.

"I've always loved the shape of the shoe, and have always been fascinated with them. I look at them like sculptures for the feet," Francis says. Looking at the exhibition of 40 different pairs of custom-made shoes, you can see his love for the art of the shoe, and the complex process. "It's really about the process and working out some of these engineering issues in my head -- that's what really fascinates me. If I just made common, market-based shoes I'd get very bored."

Perfection is constant in fashion and in shoes; it's all around us in Los Angeles. Shoe designers toss out "imperfect" creations all the time, but that is where Francis is the most fascinated. His creative mind doesn't work in the high volume, cookie-cutter perfection mode. Francis values the imperfections, plays on instinct and likes to experiment. "There aren't a lot of custom shoemakers making women's shoes because they're structurally very challenging to do. A lot can go wrong," he says. Through practice and investigation, Francis found a way to accept the limitations of handmade shoes as more than a restriction. After finding a shoe by British designer Terry de Havilland; a shoe that had unusual stitching all over the place, that was surprising and harsh at first glance, Francis realized that he loved that shoe more than any high house shoe he had seen before. "I ended up falling in love with it because I saw Terry. I saw his hands in the shoe, and I saw him as a maker in that shoe, where I wasn't seeing that in the market."

Chris Francis in his studio. | Photo: Brilliant Collective (Betsy Winchell/Jennie McGuirk)
Chris Francis in his studio. | Photo: Brilliant Collective (Betsy Winchell/Jennie McGuirk).   
Chris Francis in his studio. | Photo: Brilliant Collective (Betsy Winchell/Jennie McGuirk)
Chris Francis in his studio. | Photo: Brilliant Collective (Betsy Winchell/Jennie McGuirk).   

He found that it's only in handmade shoes that you can see the soul and passion that was put into them by their maker. "If it is a handmade item, you should celebrate that and not measure yourself always to the market standards of 'perfection.' I really want makers to relish in that and realize it's something that puts soul into your work."

The CAFAM exhibition displays 40 very different pairs of Francis' custom made shoes. Self-taught and self-driven, Francis' sculptural shoes exude a wide range of influences and styles, and carry fascinating concepts and narratives embedded in their creation. Although they are all functional, the shoes on display are more art objects than a pair you'd just go out and purchase for an outfit. Alongside the exhibit, Francis relocated his whole shoe-making studio to the museum, and is taking up residency in the storefront window of CAFAM for the entire length of his show.

"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum.| Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum.| Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.

Being self-taught, Francis is really interested in aiding the longevity of the interest in and mastery of shoemaking. He was happy to relocate his studio to the museum to help demystify the shoemaking process, and bring more awareness to the craft. Using vintage machinery and traditional tools, Francis hopes to help the community around handmade shoes grow, and be a resource to others who are interested in learning this craft. CAFAM will be hosting a drop-in workshop, "Shoes into Sculptures" with Chris to teach people (all ages) more about shoemaking and art-making.

Stemming from a culture more concerned with wealth and privilege, noblemen like King Louis XIV of France began wearing high heels as a symbol of their power, class and nobility. Women's high heels came a little later, but adopted the same traits for the same reasons. Today, with an enormous market in fashion, we are able to expand fashion to be more than just a symbol or money or power, although it is still present in popular culture. Young men collect the most expensive Air Jordans, kids leave price tags and stickers on new clothing to show their worth, people collect designers just for the name in their closet, as a sign of wealth and success. Though Francis is an in-demand designer and maker, he still creates for love of creation, and not just for commissioned shoes. The exhibit at CAFAM explores both sides of Francis' career, giving a wide range of styles and aesthetics.

"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.

The shoes on display at "Chris Francis: Shoe Designer" are inspired from a plethora of sources in Francis' life, including the Sydney Opera House, renowned shoe designer Salvatorre Ferragamo, the opium dens of San Francisco, the book "You Can't Win" by Jack Black, spray paint and Francis' past as a graffiti artist, the engineering of a shoe machine, different eras and cultures, architecture, and much more.

For Francis, the exhibition really highlights the boundary-pushing capabilities of his shoe designs, taking ideas to the edge of taste and reason. "That's the cool thing about what we're doing; we're making these things that are open to interpretation," he says. "My personal taste in shoes reaches out in all different directions; I appreciate them in all forms. Francis loves to see other makers working and wants to engage other people to be as inspired as he is with the structure, the engineering and the design of handmade shoes. "I'm hopeful that more people will fall in love with the craft and continue it."

Chris Francis moving his studio equipment into the CAFAM. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
Chris Francis moving his studio equipment into the CAFAM. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled," by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled," by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.
"Untitled" by Chris Francis. On display at Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy of the museum.

 

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